1st results in: how to move to a circular steel- and chemical industry

The steel industry is a major contributor to global CO2 emissions. However, current developments in the Steel2Chemicals project suggest that this may become a thing of the past. A joint initiative between Dow, ArcelorMittal, Tata Steel, Ghent University, TNO and ISPT shows how joining forces can develop a circular carbon chain based on high-end technology.

We talked to Matthijs Ruitenbeek (Senior Scientist) and Arne Vanstaen (Lead Chemical Engineer) from Dow about the latest developments of both the Carbon2Value and Steel2Chemicals projects.  

S2C: an alternative for the linear value chain 

Matthijs Ruitenbeek has been working for Dow’s R&D department since 2009, where he oversees programs related to synthesis gas (syngas) conversion and carbon circularity. Around 2014, Dow came across a hidden gem of unused and CO- rich gas produced in the same area Dow Benelux operates in. Because right next door to Dow, one of the world’s biggest steel producers, ArcelorMittal, is located.

This led to the innovative idea to capture and separate carbon dioxide (CO2) and carbon monoxide (CO) from the gasses produced by the steel industry to be converted into valuable products to produce chemicals and materials by Dow. Since there is no outlet for CO now, it must be burned.

Currently, CO is combusted in a powerplant to recover some of the energy: this electricity has a high CO2 footprint (even higher than coal). Dow, within its alternative resources program, has been developing techniques to convert carbon monoxide into important base chemicals for years now. This created a new synergy, that now lies at the baseline for the Steel2Chemicals project. 

C2V: reducing emissions from the steel industry 

The Carbon2Value (C2V) project was set up in early 2017. During the span of the project, the consortium used the technology to separate CO2 streams and consequently allow to valorise CO and CO2. Around 2018, the first phase which consisted of testing two valorisation routes was completed and this paved the way for the second phase: the Steel2Chemicals (S2C) project. In the first phase (C2V) the consortium demonstrated the separation of CO and CO2 and impurities in a pilot plant. In the second phase (S2C) the consortium is demonstrating if the gas could be converted to a feedstock for the chemical industry. This too, requires innovative technologies that can be used on an industrial scale, and which are economically feasible and integrated in a new type of value chain.   

The perfect challenge for Lead Chemical Engineer Arne Vanstaen: “I joined the project when we started building the second pilot reactor. I was involved from the very first blueprints on the drawing board, to building the pilot plant and executing the first chemical engineering trials. In March last year, we started the installation of the pilot plant and the first tests have been running since September 2021. Since then, we have a team of 7 operators working and 2 engineers who oversee the daily operations and data processing.” 

Running reliable operations with the reactor plant 

Today, both pilot plants are running with stable operations and Matthijs and Arne are happy to share the first results with us. Arne: “What’s to say about the current status of the reactor plant, is that the plant is running reliably, and the results are in line with our expectations. In the beginning of the program, we have outlined a few different scenarios and made assumptions on how the plant should perform.”

The first experiments started in 2018 with the Carbon2Value plant, which cleaned and prepared the gas from Arcelor Mittal. This gas is now being converted in the Steel2Chemicals plant. Today, the plant is generating real output with the gas from ArcelorMittal operations. Currently, the first jerrycans have been filled with the converted gas. This has validated that the plant operates like it should, meaning the technology is demonstrated and validated in a relevant environment. “Our next step, is pushing the productivities and testing the long-term stability of the catalyst.'” 

This is not without its challenges, Matthijs: “We are linked to another operational system and industry. The steel industry normally runs at full speed but has had its setback due to Covid coupled with the current recession. The goal of this project was to prove that the technology works in an industrial environment. We did not foresee that such an environment can drastically change within the blink of an eye, due to which some project-delays have emerged as a result of process-disturbances. However, at the end of the day, Steel2Chemicals is an experimental project in which we want to keep on learning what the technology can do for us.”

This requires a look at system integration that not only analyses the context and implementation of the technology in the current industrial environment, but also considers future systems and the envisioned industry value chain of the future. In the consortium, Ghent University and QuoMare are concerned with analysing and modelling the results from the reactor plants to discover both the commercial viability and environmental benefits. 

Nonetheless, scaling-up this type of pilot plant is excepted to be relatively easy and cost-efficient compared to that of other types of reactors, Arne tells us. “The pilot has been designed with a simple scale up in mind, where we can go from one reactor tube to thousands of reactor tubes. To elaborate: the pilot we’re using right now exists of one single tube. On a large-scale, we will need several thousand of those in parallel. This basically means that we already have a small piece of a full-scale plant. We ‘only’ have to multiply the tubes depending on the desired scale. Meaning the technology itself, or the size of the reactor and hydrodynamics, will not change in the process of scaling up.”  

Impact: creating a truly circular steel – and chemical industry

Considering the scope of the project and what these first results could mean industry-wide, let’s look at the current industrial environment. ArcelorMittal is named as the number one CO2 polluter in Belgium, just as Tata Steel is in the Netherlands. With the C2V and S2C plants, significant reductions can be made that have an immense impact on the sustainability goals of the companies as well as for the 2 countries. 

This project is not about reducing or even preventing CO2 front-end, but it is about creating a truly circular steel – and chemical industry in an end-of-pipe solution. With this method, steel companies can directly reduce their Scope 1 emissions with only minimal adjustments from traditional production methods. A step further down the road chemical companies, like Dow, can reduce their Scope 3 emissions by creating their products (mainly derived from naphtha) out of the converted gasses. Circling back, the products from Dow could later be implemented as a recycled carbon source in the steel production process. Completing the transition from linear to circular industry and a closed value chain for both the steel and chemical industry.